Susan Jacoby is an eloquent voice of secularism and atheism, and one who manages to get those views published in major venues. One reason is that she has solid scholarly cred, having written the excellent book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism and the subsequent The Age of American Unreason. And readers take notice—her new book will be released tomorrow: The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought (only$16.50 in hardback at Amazon). I don’t know a great deal about Ingersoll, one of the earliest “strident atheists” in America, but he produced one of the best quotes I know of about the relationship between science and religion:
There is no harmony between religion and science. When science was a child, religion sought to strangle it in the cradle. Now that science has attained its youth, and superstition is in its dotage, the trembling, palsied wreck says to the athlete: “Let us be friends.” It reminds me of the bargain the cock wished to make with the horse: “Let us agree not to step on each other’s feet.”
It’s about time we had an up-to-date biography of this colorful man, and I look forward to Jacoby’s book.
In the meantime, go read Jacoby’s nice op-ed in Saturday’s New York Times: “The blessings of atheism” (the piece was actually headlined on the op-ed page). It’s a strong—some will of course say “strident”—call for atheists to speak out, inspired by the faithfest surrounding the Newtown shootings.
Jacoby first recounts her conversion to atheism which, as for many of us, involved the insuperable problem of gratuitous suffering in a supposedly God-guided world:
Now when students ask how I came to believe what I believe, I tell them that I trace my atheism to my first encounter, at age 7, with the scourge of polio. In 1952, a 9-year-old friend was stricken by the disease and clinging to life in an iron lung. After visiting him in the hospital, I asked my mother, “Why would God do that to a little boy?” She sighed in a way that telegraphed her lack of conviction and said: “I don’t know. The priest would say God must have his reasons, but I don’t know what they could be.”
Just two years later, in 1954, Jonas Salk’s vaccine began the process of eradicating polio, and my mother took the opportunity to suggest that God may have guided his research. I remember replying, “Well, God should have guided the doctors a long time ago so that Al wouldn’t be in an iron lung.” (He was to die only eight years later, by which time I was a committed atheist.)
The first time I told this story to a class, I was deeply gratified when one student confided that his religious doubts arose from the struggles of a severely disabled sibling, and that he had never been able to discuss the subject candidly with his fundamentalist parents. One of the most positive things any atheist can do is provide a willing ear for a doubter — even if the doubter remains a religious believer.
Indeed. The article is a call for atheists to stand up, speak out, and proselytize. She also details what, for her, is the great solace of nonbelief:
It is primarily in the face of suffering, whether the tragedy is individual or collective, that I am forcefully reminded of what atheism has to offer. When I try to help a loved one losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, when I see homeless people shivering in the wake of a deadly storm, when the news media bring me almost obscenely close to the raw grief of bereft parents, I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.
It is a positive blessing, not a negation of belief, to be free of what is known as the theodicy problem. Human “free will” is Western monotheism’s answer to the question of why God does not use his power to prevent the slaughter of innocents, and many people throughout history (some murdered as heretics) have not been able to let God off the hook in that fashion.
The atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next.
I’m not sure how much solace, though, that aspect nonbelief provides for me. Does the relief from theodicy outweigh the knowledge that our death represents final extinction?
I’d like to live on after death, and am deeply suspicious of those who say that they don’t fear extinction. As Hitchens once put it, it’s not so much that you have to leave the party, but the party goes on after you leave. And for us there’s no party in heaven. Can any of you truly say that you welcome death with open arms? (I know, a few people will, but wait until you’re at that doorstep!)
Further, there are plenty of believers who do concentrate on this world, and don’t think so much about the next, or who do good not because they expect a celestial reward. There are good people who are religious, and would be so, as Steve Weinberg noted, regardless of their beliefs. For me, the problem of religion is threefold: Weinberg’s correct claim that it makes many good people do bad things, and some of those bad things mean imposing irrational and inimical views on the rest of us. Belief also conditions people to believe in other things without good reasons, or to coddle those who do so. I am an atheist because I cannot do otherwise: the evidence is just not there for a God, and I’m not so constituted to believe without evidence. But I’m not sure how much it’s “freed” me, except from the bonds of superstition. At least I don’t waste my time going to church, praying, or nomming wafers.
But I think Jacoby is correct when she argues that belief in an afterlife is one of those causes of bad religious behavior:
Atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith. We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held conviction that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.
I add that atheists have a much better impetus to be moral: we don’t expect rewards for our behavior in the hereafter, and act not out of fear of punishment or hope of a berth in a cloud, but simply because we think it’s the right thing to do. It’s more honest. Whom do you like more: someone who really cares about you for who you are, or someone who does that only because they think you can help them?
At any rate, Jacoby talks about Ingersoll a bit, obviously promoting her book, and then says something I much approve: let’s do away with all the euphemisms for “atheist” and call ourselves what we really are. Forget the pabulum word “agnostic,” or meaningless arguments about how it differs from “atheist.” The real reason people call themselves “agnostics” is because they’re afraid to be tarred with the other a-word, not because they’ve arrived at the monicker via arduous philosophical lucubration.
Atheism is nothing to be ashamed of—indeed, it’s a badge of honor to follow the dictates of reason. And in the case of America, familiarity with nonbelief will breed not contempt but curiosity—and tolerance:
Today’s secularists must do more than mount defensive campaigns proclaiming that we can be “good without God.” Atheists must stand up instead of calling themselves freethinkers, agnostics, secular humanists or “spiritual, but not religious.” The last phrase, translated from the psychobabble, can mean just about anything — that the speaker is an atheist who fears social disapproval or a fence-sitter who wants the theoretical benefits of faith, including hope of eternal life, without the obligations of actually practicing a religion. Atheists may also be secular humanists and freethinkers — I answer to all three — but avoidance of identification with atheism confines us to a closet that encourages us to fade or be pushed into the background when tragedy strikes.
I have only a tiny beef—a filet mignon—with Jacoby’s call for action. It’s this:
Finally, we need to show up at gravesides, as Ingersoll did, to offer whatever consolation we can.
Well, we’re not really wanted at gravesides! That will happen someday, but not now. Nevertheless, Jacoby ends her piece with a wonderful characterization of what President Obama should have said at the Newtown memorial. Go read it yourself.